Does a character provide focus but not often? Do other characters in the story know them by name or by some unique attribute or description?
Any character that gets a name or is unique description/identification is at least secondary and perhaps primary.
Any named character becomes important due to human psychology; describe someone as “a waiter” and we’ve described their function, describe someone as “Bobbie the waiter” and we’ve given them an identity.
Perhaps this hearkens back to some ancient cabal; Know someone’s name and you have power over them. Call out their name and they respond (remember the scene in the Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee Jones “The Fugitive” where Jones calls out “Richard” on the stairwell and Ford involuntarily turns? And we all know that when our parents used our full name, we were in trouble, correct?). Call out someone’s function and everybody with that function responds, depending on distance. Call out “Waiter” and the waitstaff within a few tables responds, not the entire operation. Call out “Joseph” in a busy restaurant and anybody with that name (and people who know a “Joseph”) looks up.
We make a character single, specific, worthy of our attention and elevate their purpose when we give them a name. They’re not background characters any more. They are not general, not part of the scenery, no longer simply plot fodder.
Consider the following four paragraphs:
Marino sipped cold coffee from a white styrofoam cup while standing in his corner of the office he shared with the clinic staff. A bricked up fireplace ran along the wall nearest his desk, his clarinet on the mantle. He started each day with a little klezmer or polka, something to amuse the staff before the day began.
He nodded and smiled as they came in – “Morning, Dr. Marino”, “Morning, Janet.”, “Yo, Peter.”, “Yo yourself, Brian.” – performing a headcount.
He was one shy. Who…
Pahtmus’ and Officer Houle’s voices rose above the chants and hollers of protesters outside the clinic, beyond the perimeter fencing.
Who’s important and who’s not?
- Marino is the first word in the story. It’s a safe bet that he’s 1) important and 2) probably owns the story (it’s about him).
- Janet and Brian come next but how do they come next? These characters are framed with “…they came in” and “…performing a head count.” They are named but their function is to show Marino making sure people are showing up.
- The third paragraph is pure set up so the reader will recognize…
- …the introduction of two important characters; Pahtmus and Houle. Specifically, these two characters are more important than Janet and Brian because Marino recognizes someone is missing (Pahtmus) and why (Houle).
In The Augmented Man‘s In section (see Opening Quotes, Surface, and In), Ingman, Wrobleski, Senator Astin, just about everybody except Trailer, Donaldson and Rivers are secondary, minor and/or stage direction characters (we’ll cover minor and stage direction characters in future posts). They provide history, setting, exposition, give the main characters something to react to and interact with, act as the reader’s surrogate should the scene be unfamiliar, et cetera.
A feature of secondary characters who appear in longer works is that they might not stay secondary. The Marino piece is a 3,950 word work-in-progress. Janet and Brian never reappear. However, a few more paragraphs down we have:
Marino nodded to one of the new volunteers, “Vicki, could you run out with a parking permit for Dr. Pahtmus, please.”
Vicki is named and given something to do. She plays a key role later on in the story. Of the characters named above in The Augmented Man, only Senator Astin remains secondary.
Making Characters Unique
Unique descriptive identifiers can be “names” in the sense that main and primary characters know who’s being referenced. Most people know about “the one-armed man” in The Fugitive although they don’t know his given name. More importantly, the characters recognize the significance of “the one-armed man” even if they don’t believe he exists.
Another example of unnamed but descriptively identified character is the woman in my comic noir MindMaster Case File 455: The UnResponsive Male. She’s a secondary character throughout. Her sole purpose is to define the narrator. And because it’s a short fiction piece, she never even gets a name. Consider the opening paragraph:
She opened my office door and the room temperature went up ten degrees. She wore a wide brimmed blue fedora that slipped down, covering her face slightly and it was the only loose thing she wore. She was shaped like an hourglass and it was only a few minutes past the hour. Her fedora matched her eyes and there was a cool shower of blond hair framing her northern european features. I noticed this even though I could hear my mother somewhere in the back of my mind telling me it was impolite to stare.
True, you learn a lot about the woman. You learn a heck of a lot more about the narrator, though: he has an eye for detail, especially feminine detail. He recognizes clothing as an indication of social class (or at least financial ability/status). He recognizes ethnic features. He likes women. His upbringing is in conflict with how he self-identifies.
The woman may simply say, “Oh, excuse me, wrong office” walk out and never appear again but by golly we’ve defined that narrator in one paragraph (and given the amount of detail given, she plays a recognizable role in the story).
Named or not, secondary characters provide detail and information about the primary characters. They can do it in backstory, flashbacks, asides, direct interaction, incidental revelation and more. Give them a name if your work requires it, don’t give them a history unless it’s to provide necessary content to the reader.
Next time, separating the wheat from the chaff, or Minor Characters.